Arendt, Hannah - Between Past and Future
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Arendt, Hannah - Between Past and Future

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interests and
responsibilities, it left the beliefs and speculations about a hereafter
as free as they had been in antiquity. Yet when the purely religious
development of the new creed had come to an end and the Church
had become aware of, and willing to take over, political responsibili-
ties, she found herself confronted with a perplexity similar to the
one that had given rise to Plato's political philosophy. Again it had
become a question of imposing absolute standards on a realm which
is made up of human affairs and relations, whose very essence there-
fore seems to be
relativity; and to this relativity corresponds the fact
that the worst man can do to man is to kill him, that is, to bring
about what one day is bound to happen to him anyhow. The "im-
provement" on this limitation, proposed in the hell images, is pre-
cisely that punishment can mean more than the "eternal death*'
which early Christianity thought to be the appropriate reward of
sin, namely eternal suffering, compared to which eternal death is
The introduction of the Platonic hell into the body of Christian
dogmatic beliefs strengthened religious authority to the point where
it could hope to remain victorious in any contest with secular power.
But the price paid for this additional strength was that the Roman
concept of authority was diluted, and an element of violence was
permitted to insinuate itself into both the very structure of Western
What Is Authority? 133
religious thought and the hierarchy of the Church, How high this
price actually was might be gauged by the more than embarrassing
fact that men of unquestionable stature among them Tertullian
and even Thomas Aquinas could be convinced that one of the
joys in heaven would be the privilege of watching the spectacle of
unspeakable sufferings in hell. Nothing perhaps in the whole devel-
opment of Christianity throughout the centuries is farther removed
from and more alien to the letter and
spirit of the teaching of Jesus
of Nazareth than the elaborate catalogue of future punishments and
the enormous power of coercion through fear which only in the last
stages of the modern age have lost their public, political significance.
As far as religious thought is concerned, it certainly is a terrible
irony that the "glad tidings" of the Gospels, "Life is everlasting,"
should eventually have resulted not in an increase of joy but of fear
on earth, should not have made it easier but harder for man to
However that may be, the fact is that the most significant conse-
quence of the secularization of the modern age may well be the
elimination from public life, along with religion, of the only political
element in traditional
religion, the fear of hell. We who had to wit-
ness how, during the Hitler and Stalin era, an entirely new and un-
precedented criminality, almost unchallenged in the respective
countries, was to invade the realm of politics should be the last to
underestimate its
"persuasive" influence upon the functioning of
conscience. And the impact of these experiences is likely to grow
when we recall that, in the very age of enlightenment, the men of
the French Revolution no less than the founding fathers in America
insisted on making the fear of an "avenging God" and hence the
belief in
a future state" part and parcel of the new body politic.
For the obvious reason why the men of the revolutions of all people
should be so strangely out of tune in this respect with the general
climate of their age was that precisely because of the new separation
of church and state they found themselves in the old Platonic pre-
dicament. When they warned against the elimination of the fear of
hell from public life because this would pave the way "to make
134 Between Past and Future
murder Itself as indifferent as shooting plover, and the extermination
of the RoMUa nation as innocent as the swallowing of mites on a
morsel of cheese," ^ their words may sound with an almost pro-
phetic ring in our ears; yet they were clearly spoken
not out of any
dogmatic faith in the "avenging God" but out of mistrust in the na-
ture of man.
Thus the belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, con-
sciously designed as a political device by Plato and perhaps no less
consciously adopted, in its Augustinian form, by Gregory the Great,
was to survive all other religious and secular elements which together
had established authority in Western history. It was not during the
Middle Ages, when secular life had become religious to such an
extent that religion could not serve as a political instrument, but
during the modern age that the usefulness of religion for secular au-
thority was rediscovered. The true motives of this rediscovery have
been somewhat overshadowed by the various more or less infamous
alliances of "throne and altar" when kings, frightened at the prospect
of revolution, believed that "the people must not be permitted to
lose its religion" because, in Heine's words, Wer sich von seinem
Gotte reisstj wird endlich auch abtrunnig werden/ von seinen
irdischen Behorden ("who tears himself away from his God will
end by deserting his earthly authorities as well") . The point is rather
that the revolutionaries themselves preached belief in a future state,
that even Robespierre ended by appealing to an "Immortal Legis-
lator" to give sanction to the revolution, that none of the early
American constitutions lacked an appropriate provision for future
rewards and punishments, that men like John Adams regarded
them as "the only true foundation of morality."
It certainly is not surprising that all these attempts at retaining
the only element of violence from the crumbling edifice of religion,
authority, and tradition, and at using it as safeguard for the new,
secular political order should be in vain. And it was by no means the
rise of socialism or of the Marxian belief that
"religion is the opiate
of the people" which put an end to them. (Authentic religion in
general and the Christian faith in particular with its unrelenting
stress on the individual and his own role in salvation, which led
What Is Authority? 135
to the elaboration of a catalogue of sins greater than in any other
religion could never be used as tranquillizers. Modern ideologies,
whether political or psychological or social, are far better fitted to
immunize man's soul against the shocking impact of reality than
any traditional religion we know. Compared with the various super-
stitions of the twentieth
century, the pious resignation to God's will
seems like a child's pocket-knife in competition with atomic weap-
ons.) The conviction that "good morals" in civil society ultimately
depended upon fear and hope for another life may still have ap-
peared to the political men of the eighteenth century no more than
good common sense; to those of the nineteenth century it appeared
simply scandalous that, for instance, English courts took it for
granted "that the oath is worthless of a person who does not believe
in a future state," and this not only for political reasons but also
because it implies "that they who do believe are only prevented
from lying ... by the fear of hell."
Superficially speaking, the loss of belief in future states is politi-
cally, though certainly not spiritually, the most significant distinc-
tion between our present period and the centuries before. And this
loss is definite. For no matter how religious our world may turn
again, or how much authentic faith still exists in it, or how deeply
our moral values may be rooted in our religious systems, the fear
of hell is no longer among the motives which would prevent or
stimulate the actions of a majority. This seems inevitable if secularity
of the world involves separation of